The lonesome, nasal wail of a b-flat clarinet fills the concrete canyons of an anonymous back-street in the Pangratti section of Athens, Greece. Three street musicians stroll by: a fat man, his cheeks puffing against a licorice clarinet; a shabbily-dressed, older man, his shoes run-down on the heels, squeezing against an ancient accordion; and a tall, slender man carrying a tambourine which is more beggar’s offering plate than a musician’s instrument. These three ply their trade, carrying their sad songs to the frightened masses, in search of a few Euro pennies in return. Few residents come to their verandas, testimony to both the cooler weather and the cold reality that acknowledgement of the music carries with it the obligation to throw money down to the uninvited music makers.
Beneath the shrill notes of the music, an air of despair seems palatable. Greeks of all walks of life feel the squeeze, more powerful than an accordion’s pressure, of the European debt crisis and its multiple impacts. Into this relaxed, “Mediterranean” culture, financial stressors have recently become familiar, yet unwelcome guests, showing up at the front door of everyone, regardless of how stringently one pays taxes or how effectively another routinely avoids the citizenship obligations of normal social intercourse.
Despite the non-response, the musical trio proceeds down the street. What else can they do? They stroll past small shops recently closed, due to the economic crisis. Here a small green grocer’s shop; there a butcher’s shop; over there a ladies lingerie boutique; all shuttered tightly with fresh graffiti embossing the pull-down doors. In another neighborhood, closer to the Parliament's Syntaugma Square, they will walk past burned-out buildings, the most recent legacy of violent civil protests.
Less talented beggars now have appeared on many streets in Athens. For decades, poverty, homelessness and street-side begging were the exclusive prerogative of the immigrants here. Greeks, with their proud family system intact, were much better able to hide their poverty. But now, perhaps as many of 30,000 Greeks are actually homeless in Athens. Many are showing up at charitable feeding stations whose clients have traditionally been the foreign-born.
And, so the tune has changed and few are dancing. The vaunted tourist image of some happy-go-lucky Zorba, dancing and jumping with traditional glee and light of both spirit and foot, in celebration of all things Greek, has been replaced. Today, the picture is of deep, dark brown eyes that look furtively about, black hair on heads bowed down and tired feet that more shuffle than sparkle. Indeed, the proud image of this country is being humbled by the publicly embarrassing world-wide acknowledgement of her all-too obvious deficiencies.
Like street musicians in Pangratti on a cool morning, most Greeks are helpless to do anything but what they have always done. A vaunted classical past and a reputation as the birthplace of democracy offer little actual help for an economic system that is hopelessly dysfunctional and routinely in denial.
“Songs sung blue. Everybody (here) knows one! Songs sung blue, every garden (here) grows one!”